Remarks by Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield at a Fireside Chat with Former President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf at the Global Black Economic Forum

Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield
U.S. Representative to the United Nations
New York, New York
June 29, 2023

Remarks by Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield at a Fireside Chat with Former Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf at the Global Black Economic Forum in New Orleans, moderated by Global Black Economic Forum President Alphonso David


MODERATOR: Let’s begin. So both of you heard my introduction, and you know why we wanted you here. But my first question is: Why are you here? There are many other places you could be. There are many demands for your time. Why are you here? And maybe we’ll start with you, Madam President. There’s a microphone in your chair, on that side. Let me help you. There it is.

PRESIDENT SIRLEAF: Oh, there it is. [Laughter.] Well, let me say I think it’s a great opportunity to just be a part of this event that talks about the Global Black Economic Forum. This is something new to me and I think to many of us in Africa and other places, where we go to conferences, we go to fora, but they’re never singled out to say we’re going to focus on the black people. And that’s special.

And so why am I here? I’m here to know more about it, to see what the goals are going to be, what are the processes to be able to achieve those goals. It’s going to be exciting for me to listen to you and some of the plans you have for something like this, and all the many of the corporate leaders who are sitting here in this audience, how they’re going to make a contribution to this. So I just think it’s great, and offered to be here. I want to learn, I want to listen, I want to take those ideas back and make something happen where I am.

MODERATOR: Ambassador Greenfield, same question. Why are you here?

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: I’m here for the same reasons. I’m also here because of the opportunity – the opportunity that this provides to really reaffirm and show our commitment to women, to black empowerment, not just in the United States but around the globe and in the African diaspora. I was in Brazil a few weeks ago and was really introduced to the huge African diaspora there. And what was clear to me is that we have to work and do a better job of engaging with each other, supporting each other, and moving forward on issues that impact all of us around the world.

So this gives me an opportunity to show that commitment, and particularly as it relates to women, peace, and security, working alongside this woman when she was president of Liberia – I was the ambassador to Liberia during that period. [Applause.] And I was able to see how important it is to have women in positions of power, to see how a woman leads. And so I think being able to share that with you here in this audience, to show the commitment that we have but also to get your commitments to this opportunity, I think is something that we will all appreciate. And I will be listening as well.

MODERATOR: So as we talk about the peacemaker and the bridge-builder, many people may not know that you two have a relationship that goes back many, many years. And what I want to tease out here for the audience is how your relationship has actually helped you inform your work, the policy, and the impact that you’ve had.

So maybe we can start with you, Madam President.

PRESIDENT SIRLEAF: Linda is a Liberian. [Laughter.] I think she is because we know of how well has she not only served your country as an ambassador in Liberia, but she has roots there because she did some of her research there before she completed her college training. She’s been back there, she – in fact, one of our major rural counties, as we call them, is – we call that her adopted home. That’s the place she already has some land; we’re just waiting for her to come back. [Laughter.]

But she’s – I mean, but as an ambassador, I have to tell you she was exceptional. We have a lot of shared values. So we could talk a lot. We could differ sometimes when she’s telling me to just call those names.

But Linda really was one of those ambassadors not only with the diplomatic skills, but her ability to just confront an issue with the honesty, with the exact preciseness, and to tell it like it is. And because of that, I think over the years, not only serving in Liberia, but whenever I’m in the United States or she’s involved in a program, or in another country or in her high-level positions, she’s one person that I look to as a mentor. She’s one person that I go to for counsel, and somebody who would just tell me some of the truth, to tell me when I’m wrong. I’m trying to take a decision, presidential decision; I think I’ve got all the answers, and Linda will tell me: No, no, no, just wait a minute. You missed something. Just listen to a few advice that comes from me after so many years of service.

And so that relationship has just – is just – it be enhanced from year to year. To see her right now, I don’t know how many of the officials in our country are calling her asking her for advice in difficult times to see how she can provide some answers. So it’s – Linda is someone in – Linda knows how much we appreciate her in Liberia, and I’m just proud to be her friend. That’s all. [Applause.]

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: So I have known Ellen – and I’m going to call her Ellen because she called me a friend just now – I’ve known Ellen much longer than she’s known me. I went to Liberia for the first time when I was 26 years old as a student, and that’s why everybody thinks I was a Peace Corps volunteer.

MODERATOR: Okay, Roger has redeemed himself. [Laughter.]

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: I went there as a student. She was already a force to be reckoned with. And I respected her from the moment I knew of her. I didn’t know her; I just knew of her and what she was doing to support her country. And I watched her from afar. And as I grew in my career, she grew in her being a force of nature, this “Iron Lady” who really got engaged in politics. And then suddenly I was in a position where I could get to know her personally, and from that moment on I considered her a mentor and a friend.

And I – if there’s anything I’m most proud of in my entire life, it was the period when I served as ambassador to Liberia and I was able to work side by side with her, to help her rebuild Liberia from the ashes of war. And seeing how she empowered women – and she empowered not just educated women, not just people like me. She empowered women in rural areas. She empowered women in the marketplace. She empowered young girls who, in elementary school, when you’d ask them what they wanted to be when they grew up, and they’d say “president of Liberia.”

And so her impact on Liberia, on Africa, on the entire world will always be a part of all of our lives, as we look at how we move forward. And I think that for this audience the message of the possibilities of Africa, based on her experience and leadership, I think will be very lasting.

MODERATOR: So let’s continue with that theme. And I don’t want to simply limit it to Africa, but certainly we can talk about developing nations, if you will. As you all know – and I’ve spoken about this a few minutes ago – the Global Black Economic Forum is focused on really ensuring that we achieve economic equality, economic equity. One of the challenges that countries in Africa and other developing nations face is that economic development can be tied to large, multinational corporations coming in with their own resources and talent to really build big infrastructure projects, as an example, and tap into the continent’s natural resources.

So while these projects may bring money into a country, they’re not really built around the people. And they are not – in many cases, they don’t lead to an inclusive economy. So one of the things that I would like to get both of your thoughts on – or maybe we can start with you, Ambassador – is how can we shift that paradigm so that there is a sustained and sustainable reinvestment? And what is the responsibility – we have CEOs here in the room – what is the responsibility of multinational companies with respect to community-building investments?

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Thank you so much for that question. And as you look at the accomplishments of the Biden-Harris administration over the course of the past two and a half years, we have worked diligently to engage with the private sector, to engage with African leaders, to bring them together. We had a leaders summit and a business conference last year in December, where we are working to see what the opportunities are to bring American companies to the continent of Africa, where we will create jobs and build resiliencies in these economies.

Over the course, for example, of the past three years, somewhere around 200 deals have been struck. There are a number of American companies – I won’t name them here, because I don’t know who’s in the room – that have invested in Africa. And we saw that during COVID, the importance of having companies invest in not just Africa, but to invest in community, to invest in people. Prosper Africa has contributed significantly to that. And the AGOA – the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act – has also contributed to that, where we’ve been able to create jobs on the continent of Africa, create opportunities for the private sector to export their products to the United States duty-free, creating jobs in the United States. And so it really is important that companies work not just with leaders but work with communities, and that’s something that this administration has been very strongly behind.

MODERATOR: Madam President, your views on this?

PRESIDENT SIRLEAF: Let me first put this issue in a historical context. Africa and most of the underdeveloped nations are endowed with natural resources. And for too long, the exploitation of those resources have not taken back the benefits that are required for the countries to be able to develop. Yes, times have changed, and today we have large corporate entities that are now working in countries, exploiting those resources – whether they’re mineral or maritime resources, agricultural resources – and are doing it successfully and the returns not only to the entities but to country can be very bountiful.

But how do – if I can address here an issue. What do we do to make that relationship more acceptable and more sustainable? First we need to do something about the insufficiency of resources on the part of countries when you have these large corporate bodies that get these large concessions to be able to exploit those resources, that they need to show that they can address the issues of capacity and finance: capacity, by ensuring that they develop programs for technical assistance to improve the skills in the country; to ensure that the employment practices make sure that not only do they allow opportunities to those that have the requisite skills that are nationals stuck in all positions at all levels, not just the blue-collar jobs but management jobs to enable them to be part of decision-making; to make sure that women are given equal opportunities as men. Those are the kind of corporate practices that we’d like to see improved upon so that the returns to both can be enhanced.

We believe that there could be opportunities to have partnership with national entities. Outsourcing would enable some entities, national entities, to be able to build their own enterprises and to be a part of a strong partnership for the exploitation of those resources. And so for those of you that work with that, I can say that while the rewards that come from large corporate entities are indeed beneficial and things I would like to see, like, but there are ways where they can be improved so that we can see the growth trajectory of our countries have a sustained path that we don’t have to run into a situation like when COVID-19 hits and the supply chains are not there and the responses to them are not there, that you have the economies take a big hit and they lose some of the gains that they’ve accumulated over the years with corporate bodies.

So we hope that the Global Black Economic Forum will introduce some new ideas that all of you who are part of it will be a part of seeing how whatever you do can make sure that this partnership, public-private partnership, that it takes a path that will make sure that countries do have sustained growth, that they have reached a place where they can compete, where they can grow, where they can contribute to the global chain and to the global produce that we have, and we can see diversification. We can also see our countries be able to take on major responsibility in those corporate bodies and be a part of it. Thank you.

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Can I just add to that? Sometimes we ignore the fact of how rich the continent of Africa is. The president mentioned natural resources. I like to describe the continent as the last frontier of those types of resources, I mean, and there’s – in every single country. I mean, Liberia has some of the richest rainforest on the entire continent of Africa but also around the world. The agricultural potential is immense.

And then add to that the biggest resource on the continent, its people. The median age in Africa is 19. There is a huge population of young people who are coming up on this continent, and they need to be invested, to be vested in the future of the continent, and they can’t have that investment without the investment of the private sector in them. And so we really do have to up our game on engagement on the continent where we are using the resources on the continent for the people of the continent of Africa, and it’s not just an extractive relationship where companies, countries, are going in to take Africa’s resources and not leaving anything behind. [Applause.]


PRESIDENT SIRLEAF: Let me just add something. Make sure they let them pay their taxes too. [Laughter and applause.]

MODERATOR: So what we just saw in the past five minutes was a dissertation on accountability in a very, very artful and graceful way, where the president with a livestream is now holding the Global Black Economic Forum accountable for coming up with major solutions. And that is really one of the key purposes of this conference. We are not afraid of being held accountable, and we actually want people on the stage to identify pathways for us to find solutions. So for that, I thank you for so gracefully challenging me and challenging us, and thank you, Ambassador, for doing the same.

As we think about infrastructure, certainly the economy, I want to just shift to human rights for a minute. Corporations often say, individuals often say that we support civil rights, we support civil liberties. But in some cases, we – there’s a disconnect in how those companies operate as it relates to their, quote, “values.” I remember after George Floyd was killed I spoke to many CEOs, and they were struggling with how to respond. Some were responding to concerns from shareholders. Some were responding to concerns from employees. Some were concerning due to concerns from consumers.

And for me – what I found – the key issue was companies that responded actually had defined their values; companies that were struggling with what to do didn’t have values defined. And as we think about moving forward and as we think about the continent of Africa and other places where women are not treated the same as men, where LGBTQ people could be subject to persecution and death, what is the role of corporations as they think about growth, as they think about investments, as they think about expanding into certain parts of the world as it relates to human rights? Where should that fit when they’re thinking about a growth strategy?

PRESIDENT SIRLEAF: Well – [laughter] – no, you just need fair practices. That’s number one. Treat people – your employees, your coworkers – with dignity. We must ensure first of all that countries that have certain laws and practices relating to the protection of people are equally observed and adhered to by corporate bodies. They need to address some of the shortcomings of those who work for them, whether it’s housing, whether it’s access to social services that are fair, fair hiring and paying practices to enable – I think those are what we see as ensuring that you address human rights.

There are some countries that have some prohibiting laws when it relates to that. While we expect that every corporate body to adhere to the laws of the country, but there are also certain respect for human rights that must be maintained by them without necessarily violating the law. We all know today about corporate responsibility, corporate social responsibility, and each country does require that responsibility be met in accordance with a predetermined understanding of just what the corporate body can do to be able to enhance training, mere education of workers, to enable them to contribute back to companies what are necessary to create that relationship.

Too often you have workers that are striking, that are protesting, that feel ill-treated. That leads to resentment and that leads to relationship issues by leaders of the country and corporate bodies, and it takes away from what we need: the kind of environment to attract private capital, to attract foreign investment, things that our countries need so badly. Today we don’t want to depend so much on official development assistance. We want to have a viable private sector. We want to see the United States and black corporate leaders – we want to see you in Africa taking a stand, taking a position, joining public-private partnerships for the enhancement of Africa. Because the enhancement of Africa and the success of Africa is a success of black America. [Applause.]

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Let me just say that we really do have to lead with our values, and our values mean that we have to do what is right by people. I deal with this issue every single day in New York, in the Security Council, in the General Assembly, where there are countries who say states’ rights are more important than human rights. And so they lead with the sense of the state has the right to do whatever it wants to do that may, in fact, diminish the rights of individuals.

And companies that are going into those countries have to be clear on what their values are. If they value human rights, that has to be part of their mantra when they go in and negotiate with countries, that they’re not going to discriminate against women working. I use as an example – it’s not Africa, but Afghanistan. They’re not going to discriminate against the LGBT community. They’re not going to discriminate against a certain ethnic group because that somehow is the policy of the country. But that their approach is to build community and provide opportunity for all people. And I think if they take that approach that people will work with them as they try to help these countries build a better future for their people.

And companies have to be clear about what their policies are when they go into a country. They’re not trying to change cultures. Sometimes I hear that a lot when we’re engaging with countries that “you’re trying to change our culture, you’re trying to rewrite our culture to fit your culture.” And I always throw it back that if your culture is to kill the LGBT community, arrest the LGBT community, arrest women and throw women in jail, then that is a problem for us. I’m not telling you how to run your country; what I’m telling you is what is acceptable for us to be able to work with you. And companies have to be prepared to give that message when they go in to invest in a country. Because you could go and invest in another country where you don’t have that problem, and I think you need to be able to say that. [Applause.]

MODERATOR: So I would like to ask one final question, and it’s an open-ended question. Given everything you’ve achieved and continue to achieve, given all of the barriers that you’ve broken and continue to break, given your commitment to equality, to equity, what is your dream for women? What is your dream for women?

PRESIDENT SIRLEAF: If I may put it bluntly, I wish women ruled the world. [Laughter and applause.]

MODERATOR: You can drop the mike. [Laughter.] You can just drop the mike.

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: I’m dropping mine too. I don’t know that I can add to that, Madam President. [Laughter.] Because if we ruled the world, my dream wouldn’t be necessary. And my dream is that women have full and equal participation in whatever we do, that they get equal pay, they get equal access to job opportunities, equal possibilities to be in leadership roles. And if we ruled the world, that would be the case. So thank you, Madam President. [Applause.]